Later this year, consumers will have access to solar watches for anything between £99 ($158) and £3,000 as some watchmakers announce their first light-powered watches while others release limited edition luxury versions. Citizen, Skagen, Casio, and Timex are all distributing new models that find their fuel from natural and artificial light.

How these watches will work goes something like this. A solar panel comprised of thin film cells made of either amorphous silicon, cadmium-tellurium or CIGS (copper indium gallium deselinide) sits on the face of the watch capturing light which is converted in the panel to energy and stored within the device. In a traditional watch, the source and storage of the power exists in the same part of the watch – the battery – which, once drained, is replaced.

Solar watches are not new. At Casio, David Johnson, senior general manager in the timepiece division, remembers seeing his first one within a couple of years of joining more than 25 years ago. The company has just released nine new solar powered models, including the Mudman and the Black & Gold capsule collection. Why suddenly so many new styles in 2011, and what has changed in solar?

For one thing, design. Twenty years ago, solar panels were clunky. As a result, watches were clunky. Only recently has the size of available solar panels for watch use shrunk dramatically. “It looked like a regular digital watch with [on top] something you see on someone’s rooftop, like an engine,” says Mr Johnson. “We’ve been able to slim that down and create a top layer dial to get colour and treatments to make it look like a standard analogue watch. It’s only over the last four or five years that we’ve come to where you can’t tell it’s solar just by looking at it.”

This change has not only affected the physical size of watches but changed the basic demographic of the consumer attracted to solar technology.

Brent Andriese, product manager at Skagen, which sells 3m watches a year, says: “This is a cleaner look, it’s more elegant, modern; it can be worn to the office, to a dinner or to a show. Our consumer is someone who works in a traditional office. There’s not a whole lot on our dial. You look at it, you see the time and go back to what you’re doing.”

The Scandinavian company released its first solar-powered watch in March at Macy’s, the US department store chain. It sold out in two months. In August, the company went worldwide with a solar version of its signature mesh bracelet. It estimates that solar powered watches will represent between 2 and 3 per cent of its sales in 2011 and ultimately wants them to account for at least 10 per cent of the business.“We wanted to do something responsible for the environment,” she says.

It is possible that a general interest in green living has led watchmakers to anticipate consumer response to solar power. The Solar Energy Industries Association has reported sectoral growth of 67 per cent from $3.6bn in 2009 to $6bn in 2010 in the US, which is projected to be the largest solar market within the next few years.

While those figures include all types of solar energy, easier availability of cheaper and better solar panels to the watch industry could have a dramatic environmental impact. With the average watch battery lasting only three years (timepieces with high performance functions drain even faster), 112m US households each throw away an average of eight general batteries a year.

But no amount of environmental consciousness can account for probably the main reason solar power has come to the forefront. It is now reliable for a long time period.

Citizen, which in March announced at BaselWorld, the Eco-Drive Satellite Wave, has been the acknowledged leader in more expensive solar timepieces and has been making its Eco-Drive range since the 1980s.

Those 30 years have paid off. The timepieces have evolved from an initial storage capacity of 30 days to models the company says can stay charged for seven years.

As a result, the brand has made an enormous market, offering everything from ladies’ diamond timepieces and flight chronographs to dive watches, selling 36m Eco-Drive models since 1996. This year, it has ventured into limited editions, the latest retailing for £3,000.

Mark Robinson, brand director for Citizen, says watchmakers simply have not yet fully realised the potential. “Now there are no style limitations. In the UK, more than 90 per cent of our revenue is generated by Eco-Drive watches with some styles selling over 5,000 units per year [per model]. Now Citizen UK launches more than 150 new models each year with the vast majority being Eco-Drive.”

But Mr Robinson acknowledges that for a company to make this headway would involve a tremendous shift. “In the early days, the technology drove the design of the watches. With the massive investment in R&D, Citizen Eco-Drive now has an unrivalled array of modules that can be used.”

However, some watchmakers say that solar cannot power enough functions for them to try to make every watch a solar one. Although Timex, which had previously experimented with solar in 2007 with its Ironman series, will extend solar technology to its Expedition range with the Timex Hybrid Expedition Solar. Pia Baker, brand director for sport and outdoors, says the company’s new model is a hybrid, not just solar, in order to meet other company goals.

“[Solar] technology has greatly improved in the past three years but the issue really is to do with functionality. For example GPS is exploding in [electronic] watches and is expected to grow exponentially. It’s an area that is more in demand. Right now it’s not possible to merge solar with a lot of things, because once you start putting in functionalities like an altimeter or a compass or GPS or anything that requires a lot more power, it’s difficult to power it just with solar.”

Paul Clegg, equity research analyst for clean technology at Mizuho Securities agrees. “Solar calculators are easy but if you have to make [solar cells] as tiny as they have to be to sit on a watch, it would be hard to get enough power out of them. Every year they’re getting more powerful; they understand how to improve the design by replacing materials or the construction of the cell per square inch. But that’s a race against other demands we have for our watches.”

As a result, some experts say solar technology may have its limitations. “This industry is all about expert craftsmanship, not modules,” says Ana Martins, watch publicist. “At the top end, you’re looking at hand-making things that have never been made before. Solar relies on a module which has no place in that.”

But ultimately, solar may find its sweet spot in the middle market of consumers who are neither looking for a high-performance sport model nor one-of-a-kind handiwork.

Some makers are willing to stay with it long enough to find out. Charlotte Jorst, co-founder of Skagen, says: “It’s just like going to a restaurant and ordering a burger. You might hear over and over how it isn’t healthy for you, but you still do it. It takes five to 10 years but, once you shift consumer mindsets, then it becomes a tradition. We’re not going to build a couple of models and go away. This is potentially a huge impact on the environment we could be making.”

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